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Arranging a Volunteer Experience Abroad

A combination of wanderlust and idealism sends many students abroad to volunteer. In order to make a positive difference in the world and have a deep cross-cultural experience, some preparation work is necessary before such an adventure. Seemingly endless choices can leave you frustrated, but with patience and an open-mind, you can easily arrange a volunteer experience abroad and make the most of it while you are there.

Narrow Your Search

The first step is to decide where you want to go and what you want to do. Do you want to stay in an Anglophone country or practice a new language? Is there a particular culture that has always fascinated you?  Using whatever criteria is important to you, choose one or two regions you would like to go to.

Consider what type of work you are willing to do, and list the fields in which you are willing to work. Think in broad terms rather than specific tasks:  chances of installing solar panels in rural Ghana are slim, but finding environmental work in West Africa is realistic.

Using an Agency

With your destination and field of work in mind, start to look for an organization that meets these guidelines. To simplify this process, you may want to work with an agency to help find what you are looking for and set up the experience logistically. With so many choices, a good place to start your search with trusted websites such as the volunteer abroad section of TransitionsAbroad.com or www.volunteerabroad.com.  

It is important to do your homework to ensure the program you choose will offer you a quality, safe experience that will meet your goals. Some tips for finding an organization that fits your needs:

  • Compare prices and make sure you know exactly what is included in your programming fee. “Room and board” means very different things in Accra, Buenos Aires, and Belfast.
  • Find out how long the program has been running. Well-established programs may have a time-tested positive relationship with the community, which will help facilitate cultural exchange with locals.  
  • Ask about their success rates. The organization probably collects program feedback statistics.  Ask if you can contact past participants for program reviews.  
  • Do not leave any question unanswered. Any quality organizations will be patient and happy to provide you with the information you need to make your decision.  

Finding An Organization On Your Own

As a senior in college, I decided to pay an agency to set up an internship for me in India. Six weeks before my planned departure, I became sick and had to postpone my trip indefinitely. The agency could not hold my position, and I was back at square one, but this time on my own. The first thing I did was contact everyone I knew and informed them of my situation, hoping someone would have a contact in India. Sure enough, a friend had done some research in India and knew a woman who ran an ashram for children. I emailed her, and within a week had been invited to volunteer at the ashram in exchange for room and board.

Your personal network is a great place to start: professors, internship coordinators, college friends, advisors, parents’ friends, relatives, religious communities, and local non-profits.  

If your personal network is exhausted, the internet is the next best place to look. Emily Hutter, a 2001 University of Colorado graduate who set up her own volunteer experience in Columbia, found the English school where she taught at online. Her secret to success was patience and tenacity. “Timing is everything. There is so much to look up on the Internet …you have to weed out and sift through and eliminate and recheck (all the possibilities).”

Contacting the Organization

After prioritizing your top choices, contact the organizations and ask if they would consider hosting you. Tell them why you want to volunteer with their organization, what you hope to accomplish while there, and relevant experience that you have.  Be cautious about being too pushy or having unrealistic about your expectations. Toko Tomita, a 2000 Tufts graduate, worked as an international volunteer coordinator for Global March in New Delhi, India. She advises potential volunteers to, “Know the organization well and go with a clear purpose. But remember that taking on volunteers is a big task for the organization and even though you are volunteering, it is also extra work for the host.” Finally, let them know you are open to their suggestions. After all, they know best what sort of help they need.

Doing the Work

What is the first thing you should do after arriving with high expectations? Get rid of those expectations! Trust me: the work is not going to be what you imagined. Every person I’ve spoken with about volunteering abroad has said that the work was different that they thought, but those that truly enjoyed their experience were the ones that stayed open-minded and concentrated on the fact that their experience was about more than working.

When I arrived at Mukti Ashram in India, it only took me a couple of weeks to realize that my invitation was motivated completely by Indian hospitality and not at all by a need for a volunteer. Most days, the Ashram had nothing for me to do. I was slightly disappointed, but stayed busy learning Hindi, taking in India, getting to know my coworkers and writing in my journal. Eventually, after recognizing my patience and open-mindedness, the Ashram sent me to work at the administrative offices, where I was able to use my skills to help the organization.

Be aware that much of the rest of the world has avoided the workaholism that afflicts most Americans. Because of this, the workplace may seem inefficient, technology may be outdated, resources are limited and tea or lunch breaks can last for hours. Rather than see this as “less,” focus on how this means “more” time to relax, get to know your coworkers, and explore the new world around you. Purvi Patel, a 2002 Emory graduate who set up her own volunteer experience in India, offers straightforward advice. “Don’t expect to be given incredibly challenging and stimulating work…you might not have that at all. It can be frustrating but you have to be open-minded about the kind of work you are doing and look at the bigger picture.”  

Explore

The biggest reward for all of your work is living and working in a new country, a new culture and with new friends. On the days you feel frustrated, lonely, or homesick, rejoice in the fact that you are not sitting in a cubicle 10 miles from your hometown. Travel on the weekends, try new foods, learn to dance and take full advantage of all the new opportunities presented to you. After all, your effort paid off and you have made your dreams come true and deserve to enjoy the opportunity of a lifetime.

A Sample of Organizations in India That Accept Foreign Volunteers

Tostan
Dakar, Senegal
www.Tostan.org
Women, Development, Human Rights

Global March
New Delhi, India
www.globalmarch.org
Focus: Children’s Rights, Human Rights

SWATI
Dhrangadhra, Gujurat, India
www.swati.org.in
Focus: Women, Health research

Majilis
Mumbai, India
www.majlisbombay.org
Focus: Women, legal, family

Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit
Mumbai, India
www.lawyerscollective.org
Focus: AIDS, legal, health